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Santiago Nuñez-Corrales Set to Lead NCSA Into the Quantum Future

Quantum computing is a difficult concept to convey visually. This image is a lot of lights turned on at once, on a futuristic circuit board - attempting to indicate conceptually that quantum computing is so fast, all the data points light up simultaneously.

In the late 1990s, Costa Rica was establishing itself as a hub for technology innovation. Intel had just opened up operations there and free courses offered by the government introduced citizens to computer programming and learning environments, including Logo, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

A whole generation of young people was becoming interested in computers and computer science, and among them was Santiago Nuñez-Corrales. After learning Logo in elementary school and completing his secondary education, Nuñez-Corrales knew he had an interest in math, physics and science. He enrolled in the Costa Rica Institute of Technology to study computer science and engineering, and began looking for his perfect niche in the field.

Santiago Nuñez-Corrales
Santiago Nuñez-Corrales

“Then I discovered research and its relationship to computer science,” he recalled. “It meant a connection to science and gaining a greater understanding of the universe.”

Now a research scientist at NCSA and head of the center’s quantum computing initiative, Nuñez-Corrales made his first trip to the U.S. and NCSA in 2007 soon after earning his degree as part of a project to build relationships between university researchers in Costa Rica and the U.S. It was there that he met Eric Jakobsson, a renowned NCSA senior research scientist and University of Illinois professor. “He was an excellent mentor,” said Nuñez-Corrales of Jakobsson,  who passed away in 2021. “We interacted for a number of years before I decided to come to Illinois to do a Ph.D. in informatics.” He kept up the relationship with NCSA as he excelled in his career, and turned to Jakobsson for help establishing an e-science program in Costa Rica.

Nuñez-Corrales worked as a research scientist at the Costa Rican National Center for Advanced Technology Studies, where he provided computational support to scientists in volcanology, quantum chemistry and remote sensor image processing, and helped deploy the country’s first national computational grid across the public university system. He rose quickly in Costa Rica’s research computing community, becoming Director General of Digital Technology in 2011 and of Research and Technology Development in 2013 at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Telecommunications. In these roles, he developed public science and technology policy and served as country liaison on those issues to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In 2016, Nuñez-Corrales, his wife Marilyn Porras-Gómez, and dog Coyi packed their bags and headed north to Champaign-Urbana, where he began working on his doctorate under the late Les Gasser, then a professor of computer science and engineering. 

As a graduate student, he worked with Gasser to develop Agent-Based Models (ABMs) and cyberinfrastructure experiments based on social theories. The work earned him a 2017 SIGHPC/Intel Computational and Data Science Fellowship, which provided $15,000 in yearly research and travel support to attend the annual supercomputing conference. 

“That award allowed us to stay in the U.S. and it got me a lot of exposure,” he said. “I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities it brought and for this award that recognizes and helps people from nontraditional backgrounds.”

When Gasser passed away in 2018, Jakobsson became his advisor and Nuñez-Corrales delved into what had always been his passion: using computers and computational science to advance science and solve problems. “I have always been interested in that intersection between science and computing,” he said. Computer science today is very interactive and collaborative. It’s about building relationships and finding  few ways to solve problems. And I had plenty of opportunities for this kind of work.”

One such project included working with Jakobsson to develop a model of predicted new COVID-19 cases in late 2020, which the university used to make informed decisions about safely opening the campus and following safety protocols. In May 2021, fresh off earning his Ph.D. in informatics, Nuñez-Corrales began his full-time career as an NCSA research scientist in the Visual Analytics group. He served on a project with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Colorado State University using the NIST’s Interdependent Networked Community Resilience Modeling Environment (IN-CORE), helping scientists with physically realistic simulations of disasters translate their work to the IN-CORE platform. He also worked with the interdisciplinary Molecule Maker Lab Institute, which seeks to harness AI for molecular discovery. 

It wasn’t long after that when a new and exciting door opened and Nuñez-Corrales turned his attention to quantum computing, a field that promises to revolutionize computing and find solutions to problems that have previously been too complicated to model or solve.

The great thing about NCSA is that you are given so many opportunities to explore your interests. I was given the opportunity to frame a research program and work with campus to enable the campus community to pursue quantum research.

Santiago Nuñez-Corrales, NCSA Quantum Computing Lead

Moving beyond classical computing

Although there is much hype about quantum computing, Nuñez-Corrales is dedicated to breaking through the buzz and making quantum computing a practical tool that scientists can use as easily as classical systems. The technology follows the rules of quantum mechanics, which are different from the rules of physics we know from everyday life.

Classical computing, the technology that powers the computers and smart devices we use every day, is built on bits, which store information as either a one or zero. Quantum computing is built on quantum bits, or qubits, which can represent arbitrary mixtures of both zeros or ones simultaneously – a phenomenon called superposition. Problem-solving with classical systems requires conducting a new calculation every time a variable changes. A quantum system, however, can explore a massive number of solution paths simultaneously, cleverly use interference to weed out unproductive paths and then measure outcomes that contain – with some probability of success – the desired answer. That means they are expected to be much, much faster, especially when dealing with complicated problems, from modeling the natural world to understanding reactions relevant to climate change to improving logistics in transportation routes to simulating the activity of a molecule at the atomic level with unparalleled precision.

“With our current computers, no matter how much computation we throw at them, we can’t usually reach exact solutions to these very complicated problems,” said Nuñez-Corrales. “The fact that we can move to another scale is a tremendous opportunity. We’re not there yet, but I think we are moving toward finding out what these systems are useful for and how to build them better.”

As NCSA quantum computing lead, Nuñez-Corrales is a faculty affiliate with the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST). He and Bruno Abreu, Ph.D., an NCSA research programmer with expertise in quantum systems, work closely with IQUIST director and physics professor Brian DeMarco and the Chicago Quantum Exchange, a collaboration with the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, to build partnerships with research institutions and tech industry firms.

An exterior photo of NCSA's National Petascale Computing Facility
NCSA’s National Petascale Computing Facility

One such partnership involves taking advantage of NVIDIA’s DGX Quantum, the first system to couple GPUs and quantum computing. NCSA is one of several supercomputing centers that will utilize the NVIDIA quantum processing units (QPUs). A  special GPU resource will be installed at NCSA’s National Petascale Computing Facility, which will be connected to QPUs housed at the IQUIST lab in the Engineering Sciences Building.

At the time of the NVIDIA announcement in April 2023, Nuñez-Corrales said NCSA would focus on ​​understanding and harnessing the potential of quantum devices, making quantum technologies accessible to a wide range of users, and identifying application areas where quantum computing could have a paradigm-shifting impact. “We want to move quantum forward,” he said. “if we work together with our partners, we have a higher chance of enabling impactful science and better serving our users who can benefit from quantum systems.”

Navigating the Quantum Future

Although it promises to be a game changer, quantum computing is not yet ready for prime time, according to Nuñez-Corrales. By his current estimates, researchers will work to make quantum systems fault-tolerant and easier to use over the next five years. Over the next decade, experts in software engineering and materials science will help build better systems and sometime after that, quantum computing could become mainstream, he said.

“By then, it won’t require a Ph.D. in atomic physics to use a quantum system,” he said. “Beyond that, we might have figured out what problems they are really useful for.”

In the meantime, Nuñez-Corrales, his wife, and their dog enjoy life at their home in Royersford, PA, near his wife’s job as a scientist at Dow Chemical. While the future of computing is a major part of his life, he still takes time to pursue his love of music. As a youth in Costa Rica, Nuñez-Corrales learned to play the oboe and later worked as an assistant conductor of his hometown’s wind band. He plays baroque recorder, has learned a bit of bassoon, and played with the Parkland College Wind Band. “I’m not a professional musician, but music remains a fundamental mode of expression for me,” he said. 

“As a faculty affiliate and a research scientist, NCSA and collaborators at IQUIST have helped me answer this new call to adventure.”

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